Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Subject Yourself

*Deep breathe*

Okay, I think the best way to handle this is to describing the episode without criticism, to capture how I perceived it as a kid. Then I’ll go into what stood out to me as an adult.

It opens with Lawrence Hodges, eternal troublemaker, waiting at Whit’s End for his mother to pick him up. He is chatting with Jack Allen about his new braces. Unsurprisingly, he hates them. They’re uncomfortable, they stop him from eating half the food he likes, and he has to wear them for two years. Jack Allen encourages him to be patient and follow his orthodontist’s directions, but Lawrence is still moody.

Mrs. Hodges shows up. She was delayed by a meeting to go over the new history curriculum for next year, and she is not happy with it. She isn’t very specific, but one thing that bothers her is the absence of religion, outside of descriptions of indigenous beliefs. Jack Allen says he heard something on the news about “revisionist history,” which he defines as textbooks that try to downplay the role of Christianity in American heritage. He thought that only big cities like New York or Chicago were doing that kind of thing, not places like Odyssey. But apparently he’s wrong, and he’s dismayed that Mrs. Hodges will have to teach it.

Later, Mrs. Hodges goes to the principal to talk about the new curriculum. She shows him a list of problems. The principal did not remember there being any issues, but she says there were events that were left out, and more importantly, no discussion of the Christianity that laid the foundation of those events. When he asks if she is religious, she says yes, but emphasizes that this is not relevant to her problem. She gives Washington and Lincoln as examples of figures who you can’t discuss without also discussing their faith. They go on talking, and I’ll skim over what was said because, as I said, as a kid the details went over my head. I’ll get back into them later. What did stuck was the sense that this textbook was clearly trying to brainwash kids into thinking all Christians and white people were evil.

Tension builds when the principal brings up the potential repercussions of fighting the curriculum. He thinks the government will slash their budget. He mentions an after-school program for special needs children that she works with. It’s an example of the kind of thing they could have to cut if they lose funding. He urges her to not rock the boat.

Meanwhile, Jack Allen catches Lawrence with a huge bag of snacks and candy from the “don’t eat” list. Lawrence tries to justify his shopping trip, but his arguments boil down to “but I really like sticky candy.” He’s also been having a miserable time at home. He and his mother fight every night over the headgear that comes with his braces. He hates sleeping with it, almost as much as he hates the nightly cleaning routines. Jack listens and encourages him to follow the orthodontists’ rules, but also use his imagination to make the experience more bearable.

This gives Lawrence an idea. He asks his Mom if he can get his braces colored. She doesn’t have time to talk through scheduling and costs, as she is distracted by the problems she has found in the textbook. She does like the idea of coloring Lawrence’s braces, and reassures him that she will get to it, but right now is not a good time. Lawrence is not happy to hear this. Patience isn’t a strength of his.

Mrs. Hodges goes back to the principal. Some other teachers have shared similar concerns, and she asks the principal to take them to talk this decision over with the school board. He is reluctant, but when she threatens to go to the press, he caves. He, and the board, would prefer a private discussion over a public fury. The principal does warn Mrs. Hodges that if this does not go her way, it could ruin her entire career. Mrs. Hodges is prepared to take that risk.

While his mom goes to the meeting, Lawrence waits at Whit’s End once again. He gleefully shows off his new, technicolored braces. Which he colored himself. Yeah, he got tired of waiting for the appointment, which is a whole week away, so he just helped himself to some paint leftover from his roller derby kit. Although he does now feel a little queasy…

Jack facepalms and rushes Lawrence to the emergency room.

Mrs. Hodges presents her case to the board. She is asked whether this is just discomfort over being confronted with a perspective that is different from hers, and she says she is positive that is not the issue. As she explains it, being a teacher she is used to dealing with other points of view. This book simply takes it too far.

They go over the potential consequences to her career and the school’s budget. She acknowledges those risks, but insists that an accurate, balanced look at events is crucial to education, and this textbook is simply indoctrinating students. It also opens the door to further strongarming of teachers and ideological issues. She says she would rather resign than teach the curriculum. The board thanks her for her time, and then adjourns to discuss the issue.

Mrs. Hodges then gets the message to meet Jack and Lawrence at the hospital.

Lawrence was made to throw up the paint, and is doing fine now. Jack shakes his head over Lawrence’s impatience, and Lawrence is now a little more ready to work on that character flaw. Jack impresses on him that, more than just being patient, he also needs to listen to those in authority. Lawrence then brings up his mother and her little rebellion against the school board. Jack talks about the difference between standing up as a kid to people who have expertise that you don’t (like medical knowledge about healthy teeth), and standing up as an adult who has a responsibility to protest when she sees something that is wrong. It’s a pretty good speech, honestly.

A week later, Lawrence gets his teeth colored the right way, and he loves them. Mrs. Hodges also gets news from the school board. They decided to hold off on any changes in the curriculum until they have time to take a more careful look at the material.

Cue the happy music!

Okay, so as a kid I thought this was a pretty solid episode. I didn’t really know anything about history other than what my parents taught me, and I pretty much took it for granted that AIO could teach me no wrong, so I assumed the textbook was exactly as bad as she said it was. Then I listened to it again, with more information under my belt.

Revisionist history is not just about erasing Christianity, whatever Jack Allen says. It is any approach to history that challenges a dominant narrative. It’s not inherently good or inherently bad. Like all academia, it’s only as good as the evidence that supports it.

History is, as the cliche goes, written by the victors. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say they get a crack at the first draft. Every historian writes with a perspective that will inevitably color their narrative. Sometimes they do their best to stick to the facts despite their own biases. Other times they cherry pick the facts that best fit their own biases. Sometimes they actively make shit up. Western academia is built around the idea that if you constantly question and challenge your own ideas, then the truth will eventually triumph over the lies. Revisionist history is simply a natural part of this process.

As a kid, though, Jack Allen’s skewed definition made perfect sense to me. I was being homeschooled in part because my parents didn’t trust the government to not brainwash me with secularism and liberalism. A big part of my education was learning how important religion was to everything, especially history and the founding ideals of America.

As it turned out, much of what I was taught was wrong. I didn’t learn how Thomas Jefferson cut out parts of the Bible that he disagreed with, or how Benjamin Franklin was a deist, which by 1770s standards was nearly atheism. I taught that Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were devout men. I was not taught that Samuel Morse wanted to use his telegraph machine to spread anti-Catholic propaganda, Alexander Graham Bell was a racist, ableist eugenicist, and Thomas Edison was an all-around dick. Oh, and of course it was not reasonable to suggest that people like Washington or Jefferson used the Bible to justify keeping slaves. Religion got credit for the good, never the bad.

When she gives her speech to the board, Mrs. Hodges claims to have a seven page single spaced list of errors, which she has provided to the board. Obviously a half hour episode was not going to have time to show all of them, so we have to judge it on the basis of the issues she does bring up. I already described her first issue. She thinks the Founding Fathers and other figures cannot be understood without a discussion of their faith. Obviously, for some historical figures, she is right. On the other hand, many others were passively religious, or actively critical of religion. And sometimes religion was used to justify atrocities, like how Manifest Destiny was used to justify genocide of the Native Americans. I do agree that balance is important to understanding history, but I think our ideas of balance are very different.

For example, Mrs. Hodes doesn’t think this textbook isn’t particularly fair to white settlers. She says that they talk about the settler’s slaughter of Indians but not vice versa. That’s not a fair comparison. At most, I’d acknowledge that there were inevitably cases where white non-combatants were killed by Natives, because Native Americans are human beings and any large group of human beings contains a few shitty ones. But in terms of the scale, context and stakes, there is no fair analysis that makes white settlers anything but invading imperialists. The indigenous peoples were there first; that’s why they’re called indigenous. We attacked without provocation, we broke our own treaties and we corralled the survivors into shithole reservations. And if you still think their slaughter of us and our slaughter of them is comparable, ask yourself, how many of us are left? How many of them? Entire tribes were wiped out, entire languages lost. We committed genocide, and it’s our moral imperative to admit that.

Similarly, she talks about how unfair it is that Christian missionaries are described torturing Indians. Well, tough. That happened. She complains that there’s no mention of Aztec human sacrifice. I’m pretty sure kids will find out about that one through cultural osmosis, so chill out. Plus, this sounds like a US history textbook, and that was more South and Central America, so that’s not especially relevant. She even complains that it doesn’t even mention the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, which… ugh.

Okay, for those who don’t already know, the history we are taught as kids is extremely skewed. There was one Thanksgiving that kind of resembles the kindergarten play version, and a ton of others that were held specifically to celebrate. If you want to know more, here’s some links. Besides, even if the sweet holiday version were completely true, would it really be historically relevant? If the best moment in European/Indian relations you can think of is one reasonably pleasant dinner party, that tells you something right there.

The last problem she describes is that the textbook “makes it sound like religious leaders were responsible for slavery.” That’s an ambiguous phrase. Do they specifically paint a picture of bishops sitting in a dark room hatching a plan to enslave Africans? ‘Cause yeah, that would not be correct. But “responsible” can also mean responsible for allowing it to happen, or justifying it. Christian preachers absolutely did that. She also says they aren’t credited with abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. That’s a fair point.  There were religious leaders both condemning and defending slavery.

A few paragraphs ago, I put a pin into the whole concept of whether or not the real complexities of religion in the US would be in line with AIO’s philosophy or not. Not every Christian in American history preached Christianity exactly the way AIO does. Quakers, for example, were probably the most famously anti-slavery denomination, and they were vocal activists. AIO is a fan of original sin. Quakers talk instead about the inner light of God which inhabits everyone, and many Quakers do not believe conversion is necessary for salvation. They also value the Bible but do not consider it infallible or the final word. Unitarians, who frequently reject even the divinity of Christ, were also typically abolitionists. As we know from episodes like Bad  Company, AIO does not look kindly on this kind of liberal Christianity. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists, whose doctrines align far more closely with AIO, literally became Southern Baptists because their leadership refused to condemn slavery.

I can headcanon Mrs. Hodges as a person who understood all this, and whose ideal textbook would not only celebrate Christian heritage, but also criticize Christianity’s failings and celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs among those who had, on the whole, an influence for good. But it does not change the fact that in their own writings on history, AIO certainly does not reach for this balance. Their definition of Christianity is narrow, to the point of cutting out many modern Christians, let alone earlier religious movements. I’m also not saying all the AIO-style Christians defended slavery and all the hippie Christians attacked it, but there’s a general trend here.

Mrs. Hodges says that this is “what we accused the Nazis of doing.” But the problem wasn’t the act of revising, just as Hitler’s problem wasn’t the gift of eloquence and Communism’s problem wasn’t the idea of regulating businesses… oh wait, AIO’s staff probably thinks the last one was the problem. Well, moving on. The problem happened when they lied, and cut out everyone who disagreed with the lie. And AIO is portraying the cutting out of Mrs. Hodges as an attack on people who disagree. That’s not what is really happening. In our society, there is still back and forth over education and textbooks. Sometimes I agree with what goes in and sometimes I don’t. And, most tellingly, I don’t think anything that Mrs. Hodges complains about is a serious inaccuracy. In some cases they are overcorrecting, but even there, society has so much of the opposite perspective… kids are going to hear your side too, Mrs. Hodges.

And here we get into my real problem. She makes an argument, a very good argument, that there’s something suspicious about a textbook that constantly picks and chooses what to include and what not to. Well, that can apply to the whole of AIO. They constantly pick and choose pro-Christian perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-traditional gender role perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-white perspectives. And when society presents them with alternate perspectives, they pick the most extreme example and cry foul.

Final Ratings

Best Part: This time my favorite part wasn’t a single scene, but an element of Mrs. Hodges’ character. She isn’t an aggressive person. On the contrary, she is very sweet and easygoing. This episode gradually revealed an inner strength to her that was both surprising and realistic. They say “beware the nice ones” for a good reason. Often the people who are softest on the surface have the most strength inside.

Worst Part: Jack’s skewed, scaremongering description of revisionist history.

Story Rating: Truth is, in terms of basic plot structures, this is one of the better ones. While it’s a bit obvious where it is going, it is tense, it engages the reader, and it uses Lawrence’s subplot as a good tension reliever. Hey, I split up the moral and story ratings for a reason! B+

Moral Rating: As with so many of these political themes, I have to split the difference between the ostensible moral message, and the underlying political ideas. The basic idea that authority should be respected in some cases and challenged in others is dead on, and they introduce some ways to tell the difference that are reasonable and accessible to kids. That’s an incredibly important set of ideas. But underneath it, they try to whitewash the racial and cultural imperialism that has marred our country’s history for so long. That’s incredibly damaging. So what the hell should I give this?

Well, if I’m analyzing this episode in isolation, halfway between an A+ and an F- is a C. If I’m analyzing it in the context of other themes, I’d have to weight the F side and give it a D-. Do with that what you will.

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Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson

Midnight Robber

What It’s About

An epic bildungsroman about a young girl’s journey from fugitive to folk hero, set in a future where space is colonized by Caribbean peoples.

Why I Think You Will Like It

God, there are so many levels on which I want to recommend this, it is honestly hard to pick where to start.

First there’s the sci-fi coolness level. This is a fucking awesome world. You’ve got your androids, your nanotechnology, your pocket dimensions and your aliens, all well thought and neatly integrated into the coolest fucking neo-Caribbean culture. The dialect and carnivals and food and clothing all make for a spin on space opera that I desperately want to see more of. This was my first taste of Afrofuturism and I got hooked, in the best way.

Then there’s how it handles abuse and trauma. Tan-Tan is a fun protagonist, full of spark and wit and ferocity. She’s a perfect blend of larger-than-life enough to be thrilling, but flawed enough to be relatable. In her childhood you see the makings of a rogue on par with Han Solo or Jack Sparrow. At the same time, people don’t become that devilishly tough without surviving some absurdly scary shit first. This is a hard balance to portray; how to be honest about the pain of trauma survival without losing the fun of a thrilling adventure? Not only does Nalo Hopkinson pull this off, but she pulls it off with some subject matter that even very skilled Serious Literary Authors can fumble badly. (see content warnings for details, and some mid-book spoilers)

And then there’s just the story as a story. It starts out fascinating, takes several twists, builds to a point where you can’t see a way out and are internally bargaining for at least a bittersweet ending, and then explodes into a perfectly satisfying eucatastrophe. This book is not just science fiction at its best; it is storytelling at its best, period.

With all that, I still have not mentioned how it handles imperialist colonization tropes, or how the aliens as individuals are some of the most relatable characters but as a group feel genuinely alien, or the beauty of the prose, or how the folk tales within the novel are beautifully atmospheric… gah, just go read this book! Read! This! Book!

Content Warnings

It’s definitely a grown-up book. There are fight scenes, alcoholism, nudity, and lots of swearing. Also, by way of a trigger warning, there is child abuse, including sexual. The actual scenes are brief, but realistic and scary.

I’m almost reluctant to admit to that last, because if I had known I might have been more shy about this book, given that I picked it up wanting a fun adventure (which I got!). Sexual abuse and fun adventure stories don’t usually go together, or if they do it’s because the victims were used as cheap props to artificially up the stakes.

One in three women and more men than you’d think survive some form of sexual assault, and in the real world that does not mean their lives have to be doom and gloom forever. The problem with addressing that in fiction is that it can too easily turn into dismissing or understating the pain. But it is equally a problem to build up the expectation that a survivor of sexual assault is Ruined Forever(TM)! It’s just another thing that makes coming out as a survivor more difficult. People are genuinely baffled to meet a survivor who is not Ruined Forever(TM)!

This is one of the few books I’ve read that actually has an honest, painful, doesn’t-happen-in-one-epiphany recovery for a survivor of abuse. It does this while also giving you a fantastic fantasy romp. If sexual assault is a major trigger for you, probably don’t read this book. But if it’s not, give it a try. Books like this need to exist.

Ugly, by Robert Hoge

Ugly

What It’s About

Robert Hoge was born with a facial tumor and deformed legs. This is his memoir of a childhood of surgeries and misadventures, bullying and friendships, growing up and ultimately learning to love his body and his face.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I’m probably supposed to write about how inspiring and moving and educational this is, but honestly, I want start off recommending it for its humor. It’s a book about surgeries and prejudice and kids being assholes, but it’s also about spitballs, sports, what happens when you cross clunky prosthetics with a bicycle and a beehive. It’s about getting stuck in the mud and rescued by a nun, and refusing to learn from that experience, because mud is fun.

And there’s sad stuff too. When he was born, his mother was terrified to look at him, overwhelmed by the prospect of raising him, and has to go through a journey before she decides to take him home. Too many stories either erase or excuse the ableist reactions of a parent who first has a disabled child. I love that this story is there, without sugar coating, and also that he can talk about his mother overcoming that reaction without excusing it. That story was part of his normal; and not, thankfully, something used to make him feel guilty or grateful. It was a story of how his mother almost made the biggest mistake of her life, and missed out on a beloved son. In that one story there’s so much to learn about ableism and societal pressures and family and how love isn’t just a feeling but also a choice. And it’s just one of many equally thought provoking stories in the book.

I think there’s a huge need for well-rounded books about disability. His story is full of sad parts and happy parts, but it’s neither a doom and gloom navel gazing memoir nor a sugary mess of Inspiration!(TM) It’s an honest book about an ordinary person being dealt a really crappy starting hand, making the best of it, and going on to have a life of his own.

Content Warnings

None; even the descriptions of the surgeries and bullying hit a good balance of honest, but not graphic or immersive. This is probably because the book is actually aimed at middle grade readers, though I recommend it for anyone of any age.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Arizona Sunrise

(apologies for posting this so late in the day. It’s been a helluva week)

I’ve described some problematic race portrayals on Adventures in Odyssey. People of color are inevitably either submissive to or violent enemies of heroic white people. This series also whitewashes historical people of color, even when all characters should be Middle-Eastern Semitic peoples.

Among white people, there’s a tendency to describe racism as something exhibited by swastika tattooed skinheads and absolutely nobody else. This is especially a problem in right-wing religious GOP-loyal communities, but white liberals are hardly exempt from it. And, god, the deeper I get into this topic the more I feel like I’m not the right person to describe it. The whole problem starts with white people talking to other white people, who haven’t experienced racism, about what racism really is. We tend to soften up our descriptions in order to make each other feel comfortable, and conversations about oppression and bigotry shouldn’t be soft and comfy.

So this episode isn’t going to explain everything about racism in all it’s forms and why they are bad. You should be looking for blogs written by POC for that. I’m just going to explain where, on the great wheel of all the diverse types of racism, AIO fits in, because that will be important context for the next video.

And to demonstrate what AIO’s race problem is, there is no better episode than Arizona Sunrise.

This episode opens with a chance meeting between Jack Allen, a friend of Whit’s who has recently opened an antique shop in town, and Cody, a small child plagued by homework. He’s supposed to do a report on a famous person from the Old West, a task which is unsurmountable because, as he says, he doesn’t know any famous people.

As luck would have it, Jack was just researching the history of an antique saddle he received. It was the property of Reverend James Klinger, a circuit preacher who preached in the Arizona territory. He even still has the page with Klinger’s biography open in his computer, and he invites Cody to look it over and see if this would be a good candidate for his report.

The article starts by talking about the Apache wars coming to an end, and “resentment between white and Indian alike.”

Well, that’s, um, a highly colored characterization. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

We open on James Klinger reading the Bible to a group of Apaches, and talking about sin, death and redemption. He asks them if they are following. They all say they don’t, so he prepares to break it down for them. He first asks if an Apache would ever die for his enemy. One of them immediately responds that no, an Apache would kill their enemy. Lol, what charming savages. But don’t worry, we’re dodging that bullet with Klinger’s jovial admission that many white people would as well. All Apaches, many but not all white people, gosh, we are being fair minded here, aren’t we?

Klinger goes on to explain that sin makes us like God’s enemy, yet he chose to forgive us and even die to pay the price for our sins. The Apache find this bewildering but interesting. They say they’ll think over these ideas, and Klinger says that is all that he asks. He says good-bye to them and sets off with his companion/bodyguard/heterosexual life partner, Reese. Reese asks if he expects these savages to ever turn around, and Klinger laughs and says he has to try.

A rider comes up to drag them back to the fort, because the captain is outraged about something or other. Said captain yells at Klinger for a while about how horrible and savage Apaches are, and when Klinger again says that we are all heathens under the eyes of God, at some point or another. The captain agrees but repeats that no Apache has “the ability or inclination to change.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, which Klinger not exactly denying that Apaches are heathens or savages, just asserting that he has a calling to try his best, whatever they do. Here’s where I want to make a distinction between Klinger the character and the overall message of the episode. There’s a possible argument to be made that Klinger disagrees seriously with the captain’s characterization, and is simply choosing his battles. Or maybe you don’t agree with that reading of the character at all, and that while his intentions are good he also takes an infantilizing, paternalistic attitude towards the Apaches. It’s a brief episode, so you can read a lot into his motivations from scene to scene, and what you project probably has more to do with you and your experiences than anything else. What we do know is that this episode, having limited time, has made multiple characters bring up the message that salvation is needed by some white people and all Apaches. It’s pretty safe to assume this is a perspective the writers want us to take.

The captain seems to be trying to persuade Klinger that the Apache are not worth saving, and he even brings up the fact that Klinger’s mother was killed by Apaches. But when Klinger insists that this is his calling, and nothing will dissuade him, the captain suddenly tells him that Messia, an old chief, has gone out into the desert to die. It’s supposed to be an old custom of theirs.

I did try to find evidence for this ritual. I read through several online articles on Apache death rituals, and while there was certainly some variation between different tribes, I didn’t see anything like this described, especially in the sites curated by actual Native Americans.

Anyway, the captain’s information is out of character, because everything in the dialog up until now made it clear that he in no way wants Klinger to go preach to any Apaches. The captain thinks it’s a waste of time that aggravates tensions and makes it harder to keep the peace. But Klinger has only been more and more insistent that he will do anything he can to convert as many Apaches as he can. So the captain’s response is to tell him about someone who is A. about to die and B. clearly not into the Christian thing, as he’s still doing the “old Apache spiritual tradition” thing. Yeah, that’s real in character. This unnamed authority figure is definitely a fleshed out person, not a walking tool for exposition.

Anyway, Klinger announces that he’s going to go make conversion happen. Plus, if he can also save Messia’s life, bonus. But definitely the conversion thing, as the priority.

He and Reese first go to Messia’s old village, where most of the villagers want him to clear out and stop meddling. But Messia’s granddaughter, Nalicadaeh, comes up to ask about this whole Western medicine thing. Klinger has emphasized that his doctors may be able to save Messia’s life, and Nalicadaeh believes him. Messia’s her only family, so she can’t stand to lose him. The tribe threatens to cut her out if she helps Klinger, so she decides to convert on the spot.

If you listen to people who have had some experience being pressured to convert, or otherwise abandon their culture and home, it is always a painful experience, regardless of their reasons. But as Nalicadaeh talks to Klinger, she shows no sign of conflict or mourning over her decision. She talks excitedly about what her new God can help her do, and focuses on the search. You could, again, interpret her character many ways. This could be putting on a brave face or overcompensating so Klinger will believe in her conversion and help her. But either way, the episode is not giving any complexity to her situation. From Klinger’s perspective, she is both saved from eternal damnation, and might also get her grandfather back. The fact that she has also been separated from her home forever… we aren’t invited to think about that.

And there’s another character/story distinction of note. Klinger has no idea what is wrong with Messia. He probably doesn’t know how ignorant doctors of his era were, but he certainly does know that there are many diseases where the best they can do is make the patient comfortable, then wait and see. He also probably knows that most diseases of old age are in this category. The hope he offers Nalicadaeh is slim to illusory, and he knows it. But, again, from a character perspective, maybe it does come from genuine optimism.

The writers, on the other hand, know (or could easily find out) the state of medicine in 1887. It’s not good, especially when the patient was an elderly person. Antibiotics were a theoretical possibility discussed among the doctors who bought into this newfangled “germ theory of disease” notion. Surgeries were a last resort, because even if the infection didn’t get you, blood loss probably would. A few mad scientists were messing around, rather controversially, with transfusions, but they wouldn’t figure out how to do it safely until the early twentieth century. The point is, whatever Messia needs, from heart surgery, to a removed tumor, to a bacterial infection healed, even the most competent doctor of the era probably couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, medicines weren’t regulated in 1887. You pretty much had two options; herbal remedies based on tradition and folklore, or “patent medicines,” which were cure-alls peddled by travelling con artists. Of the two, traditional herbal remedies were the better option, as they were given by someone who actually had to stick around and see what worked and what didn’t. Patent medicines were mostly just alcohol and promises.

This matters, because Klinger is about to be heroized for bringing an old man to Western medical doctors, when the reality is there was nothing Western doctors could do that couldn’t be done just as well by Apache healers. And the writers have no excuse not to know this.

Back to the episode. When they stop to rest, Klinger and Nalicadaeh share stories of families lost to the war. He lost his family to the Apache, she lost hers to white people. Oh, how tragic it is that both of these people came from warring sides, each of which were in a morally equivalent position.

Sigh.

Nalicadaeh does not want to stop. She wants to keep seeking Messia through the night, while Klinger and Reese insist that they make camp for the night. Their debate is interrupted by Pialsiney, an Apache scout from the fort who claims to have been sent by the captain. Apparently the Apaches are only keeping the peace while Messia lives, and so the captain has done an ideological about face, re: saving Indians. During this conversation, Nalicadaeh sneaks off, forcing them to continue the search for both her and her grandfather.

Nalicadaeh finds Messia and guides Reese, Klinger and Pialsiney to him. She says he is very sick and must be taken to a doctor quickly. Pialsiney immediately reveals that his story was a lie. Apparently Messia killed Pialsiney’s family, in revenge for their collaboration with the white men. Messia does not deny this, and even points out the war trophies he took from them. He wants to die, Pialsiney wants to kill him, this all works out. But this talk of war trophies draws Klinger’s eyes to a familiar necklace. Turns out, Messia is the one who killed Klinger’s mother. Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!

Yeah, obviously this isn’t going to change Klinger’s mind. I should admit that the acting is good here. He really sells us on the difficulty behind Klinger’s decision to not take revenge, or allow Pialsiney to take it. But obviously this is the only way it was going to happen. There’s gotta be a message about God and forgiveness, and a dramatic display of self sacrifice that convinces Messia to convert. So Klinger physically shields Messia and gives a speech, and then Reese subdues Pialsiney and they all head back to the fort.

Also they see a sunrise, and that’s significant because Nalicadaeh had been afraid Messia would not live to see it, and there’s an episode title namedrop along with swelling dramatic music.

We cut back to Cody reading the article aloud, and he narrates that Messia survives for several more years and converts along with Nalicadaeh, and eventually many others in their village. Cody gets excited about this story and declares that he will definitely write it up for his history day project, because, as Jack Allen says, it’s so sad that we don’t hear more about how epic and wonderful missionaries were.

Now, I thought that this would be a hard episode, because I would have to do tons of research on the reality of James Klinger, and contrast the real person with the character. Uh… not so much.

Many listeners have written in to ask if the story of James Klinger in
Arizona Sunrise is a true one. In the episode, a circuit-riding minister
sets out to save the life and the soul of an old Apache warrior. Though the
characters in this episode were fictional, the story is based on an actual
historical event. Apaches did go out into the wilderness when they thought
it was their time to die. In 1905, a Lutheran pastor went searching for an
Apache chief who had done just that. He found the chief, brought him
back to civilization, and nursed him back to health.

Link here.

There is no information that would enable us to look the story up for ourselves. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t find any reference to that as a custom, makes me distrust their source. There was a market for sensationalized stories about Native Americans for a very, very long time, a lot of nonsense got passed off as fact, and when it comes to indigenous cultures you have to trace your sources carefully.

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I could not even find evidence that Messia, Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney are actually names in any Native American language. Searching for either Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney just gave me two pages of Google results, all of which were references to this episode on AIO fan sites. Messia brought a lot of sites where somebody had misspelled Messiah.

So we see a fake story, framed as real to an impressionable audience, which misrepresents Western medicine as superior at a time when it really wasn’t. The hero is a man whose life mission is to convince Native Americans to abandon their beliefs and culture for his, while the writers have seemingly not bothered to do even the slightest research on what those beliefs actually were.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of adults who agreed with a lot of racist stereotypes, from savage Indians to lazy Latinos to ignorant Black people, and they were always quick to clarify that it wasn’t the people, not the skin color or genetics, no, it was just the culture. Brown people could be just as good as white people, so long as they took on white culture. But people of color who acted, you know, non-white, those people were a problem.

And I’m upset to admit it, but as a little kid, I bought it, until I started reading books that actually celebrated non-white cultures. Not all of those books were good quality, and many came from the weirdly fetishistic liberal culture that put every non-European culture onto a pedestal of enlightenment. But they lead me to an important realization; I was being taught to judge other cultures without even being taught what those cultures were. Cultures are complicated as hell. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” culture; all cultures have good and bad aspects, because they are made up of complicated humans who themselves have good and bad aspects. And nobody is either free from or completely controlled by their culture. Offloading old stereotypes onto “cultural differences” isn’t an evolution beyond racism. It’s the same old bigotry, with a new hat on.

In my next episode, I’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall philosophy of Adventures in Odyssey.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I kinda liked Nalicadaeh running off to make the guys follow her. Way to game the system, kiddo!

Worst Moment: Any of the bits where they go on about savage Apache ways could count, but Pialsiney has a bit where he specifies that he wants to kill Messia slowly with a knife, because that’s “the Apache way.” I really hate that the line that most condemns Apache culture comes from an actual Apache… it’s like they are trying to lend an extra veneer of authenticity.

Story Rating: I mean, it was entertaining, in a mindless, inaccurate, white man’s burden King Solomon’s Mines kind of way. Oh, and in an era where there weren’t nearly as many excuses for not doing your research. Plus you’ve got to make sure you don’t notice any of the plot holes, like the captain’s lack of a character, or the clumsy frame device. So, you know, C-

Moral Rating: So, with many of these political posts, I have to make a distinction between the implicit social message and the explicitly stated moral. Obviously the explicit message is about forgiveness and how it’s awesome, and I don’t want people to think I don’t approve of that part. I’m generally pro-forgiving, although when I get to the forgiveness section I’ll be pointing out some episodes where I think their ideas about forgiveness are weirdly skewed. But you know, when it comes to the decision to kill or not kill someone who once wronged you but is now a sickly old man who can no longer hurt you and who you think deserves a second chance, I’m all for it.

But there also is some proselytizing, from Jack and Chris, about how missionaries were awesome and epic and important to history and whatnot. I… well could say a lot. For now I’ll just say that I think, if they were so awesome and important, why the fuck didn’t you write an episode around a missionary who actually existed?

So, an A for “forgiveness is good,” a D for “missionaries are so epic and historically important that I can completely make up a story about a fake missionary doing fake epic things,” and an F for “brown people are okay, they just need to be saved.”

We’ll call that a D+, I guess.

Nexus, by Ramez Naam

Nexus

What It’s About

In the near future, humans have found myriad ways to augment themselves. These new developments are both feared and anticipated, used and abused. A fragile balance of power lies between those who would explore the limits of transhumanist technologies and those who would limit and regulate it. When a new street drug gives people the ability to connect empathically and telepathically, however, the two forces are forced to come to a head.

Why I Think You’d Like It

As far as my personal tastes go, this is the gold standard for hard sci-fi. As much as I enjoy SF elements justified with “because it’s cool,” there is something special about intensely researched, maximally plausible science fiction. The only reason I don’t read more of it is that, too often, the characters aren’t people. For me personally, that’s an absolute dealbreaker.

Ramez Naam was a computer programmer and posthumanist philosopher long before he started writing fiction. He knows his stuff. But what I love most is how alive his characters are. He has an enormous cast to juggle; not quite to the George R. R. Martin level, but to the level of someone who has his picture on their vision board. Despite that, every one has their own distinct voice. He shows you who looks for the exits first when they enter a room, and who wanders over to the paintings on the wall, who defines themselves in relation to their past and who obsessively imagines the future, who spends most of their time admiring others and who calculates the best way to use others, and who barely thinks of other people at all. All of that happens so naturally that it took me a while to realize just why I had such an easy time keeping track of whose head I was in. This book gave me revelations on how to write characters.

I also love that, although he has his own thoughts on whether or not transhumanist evolution would be a good thing, he avoids simply dividing his cast into heroes and villains. There are characters who horrifically abuse technology that he clearly loves, and there are characters who have painfully sympathetic reasons for opposing it. While he successfully brings you around to his side, he does so without resorting to strawmen or other cheap narrative tricks. Or at least, he did with me; I think even if you’re not totally convinced, you’ll still enjoy the book, which is a testament to how well he explores the idea.

He also does representation exactly the way I think all authors should. The women all have goals that don’t revolve around men and relationships, and Bechdel’s Test is passed every few pages, with the natural ease that should be normal. Some people are randomly queer because the real world has random queer people. It starts out on the West Coast, and the characters come from an accurate variety of backgrounds. When they travel to Thailand, most of the new characters are Thai. That shouldn’t be remarkable, but you know what you mean. We’ve all seen the story set in a foreign country yet no important person is actually from there. I don’t know how accurate, say, the Thai culture is, but I can say that everybody was a person first, with gender/sexuality/ethnicity being just one among many pieces making up who they are.

All of this plays beautifully into the plot. He is telling a story about a fundamental reshaping of humanity, and to tell that story right, capturing humanity itself is essential. He absolutely nails it.

Content Warnings

It is a fairly intense book. Many factions are violent, and there are plenty of character deaths. Even when there is no actual fight scene, the threat of violence usually present.

He also explores the emotional and psychological abuses of this technology. This includes personality rewriting and taking over other people’s body. There are references to the technology being used for sexual abuses. It’s one case where I actually thought it was justified by the story. I hate it when rape is just treated as a requirement to make a story Gritty And Realistic(TM). But when violations of bodily autonomy and consent are an issue intregal your story, not acknowledging sexual violence would be a problematic oversight. One thing I appreciated was that these uses mostly happen offscreen. It mentioned as a reality and recalled as part of a few character’s backstories, but he never sucks you into a graphic scene.

There are also explicit sex scenes, but the only thing that’s portrayed as sexy is enthusiastic consent. There is one scene that might be triggering; a man is trying to hook up with a woman, and he has used a behavior modifying program to get over his awkwardness in flirting. A bug in the program causes him to lose control of his body. This is not portrayed as sexy, but equal parts scary and embarrassing. Neither of them suffer any long term harm, and if you want you can skip to the next line break without missing anything important.

Also there’s swearing, drugs and alcohol. Yeah, it’s definitely a grown-up book.

Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading Disabled Characters Who Rock

The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene An Intimate History

What It’s About

A history of the discovery of the gene, the decoding of DNA, and all the difficult social and ethical questions that come with the science of genetics.

Why I Think You’d Like It

In general, I love the style of teaching science through it’s history. It’s a reminder that science is not a result, but a quest, and scientists not as austere demigods of knowledge, but fumbling discoverers who make no shortage of mistakes along the way.

In this book, it is an especially appropriate approach. Every scientific story has included the potential for abuse, but the science of genetics has been misused in some of the most horrific ways yet. Even the nuclear bomb can’t compete with the deaths and tortures we have justified with some misappropriated genetic jargon. By telling the history of genetic studies side by side with the cultural implications, Siddhartha Mukherjee brings home the importance of thinking hard about how we use and abuse genetics today.

He also tears apart the cultural abuses of science brilliantly. He starts with the justifications themselves; what people said in order to make segregation, forced sterilization and genocide sound not just socially acceptable, but enlightened. He puts you in the place of an ignorant citizen, easily impressed by anybody who sounds like they can tell a mitochondria from a protein. This is paired with reminders of the culture at the time, and the way certain lines of reasoning sound appealing as they justify pre-existing beliefs. Then, just as you’re beginning to worry about whose side he’s really on, he attacks. He lays out the lies, the misconceptions, the assumptions and outright biases. He exposes the reality of the lives affected by the various racist and toxic policies, and the actual moral questions we are left with. As he moves forward through history, you see the gaps close between antiquated notions and ideas we can find in any modern grocery store magazine stand. You see the common lineage of modern ableism, sexism and racism share with the eugenics movements of the past. He points out the flaws in saying, “well, they didn’t know better back then” by showing the questions that scientists could have asked, even with their resources at the time, but didn’t, and the dissenting voices that were ignored until it was too late.

But don’t think this is a downer book. It’s also full of the miracles and wonders of real science and true discover. The prose is fantastic as well. Siddhartha Mukherjee has a good sense of narrative rhythm, and hits a beautiful balance between thought provoking and fun to read. This history is fascinating and cool, but it’s not an abstract curiosity for any of us. He does a fantastic job reminding us of this.

This is an awesome book for anyone into science, history, politics, social justice, human rights, culture, or just learning for the sake of being a more informed person. It is fascinating and cool, but genetics not an abstract curiosity for any of us. It is inextricably linked to who we are, and how we view it will determine how we operate as a society.

Content Warnings

Nothing in a MPAA sense, but as you probably gathered, a good deal of the book covers arguments for oppression, and the real world consequences. Unless any of that would trigger actual PTSD symptoms, I’d encourage you to give this book a read. He is blunt, but not graphic, and the payoff is exponentially worthwhile.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 2

When the last episode left off, Felix was harassing Hezekiah for no reason other than this story needs a bad guy, and the two guys sexually harassing Connie won’t do. Connie yells at Felix to stop, but he ignores her, because she’s a girl, but then Judah pops up out of nowhere and Felix is all, “sweet, new target! I look way cooler beating up on a young man than an elderly one.” Connie continues to beg that he stop, and continues to be ignored. Finally Lucanus returns and breaks it up.

Afterwards, Connie and Judah have a nice bonding moment over their shared passion for politics and justice and standing up to The Man. Yeah, no, I’m just kidding. Instead, Judah complains about the humiliation of being defended by a woman. Nice. Real nice, man.

Well, now that we’ve exhausted that plot point, it’s time for Joseph and Mary to show up! Benjamin says they don’t have any space, but Connie convinces him to put them up in the stable. Hezekiah hovers and fanboys over the pair until Eugene drags him away. Eugene may be socially awkward, but even he sees the faux pas of drooling over an exhausted pregnant woman.

Side rant; when Joseph reveals his fiance is pregnant, Benjamin says a sarcastic “mazel tov.” Ummm…. mazel tov is a modern Yiddish idiom. I mean, the words are Hebrew, but the phrase isn’t, based on my internet research. I bring that up for three reasons.

First, this episode has prided itself on historical accuracy, but there isn’t much to back up their boast. Little details like this make the pseudo-intellectual bravado more irritating. Second, Benjamin has a pronounced Yiddish accent, but not every Jewish character does. Mary doesn’t, Joseph doesn’t, Judah doesn’t, and most of the extras don’t. Benjamin is a stingy, self-absorbed businessman. A funny one who you are supposed to like, but he does not care about people. He cares about the stability of his inn. Hezekiah also has an accent, as does Benjamin’s wife, so it’s not like every character who sounds stereotypical is also greedy, but of the three Benjamin gets the most dialog. Third, the Yiddish phrases and accent create a paradoxical whitewashing effect. Sure, they say everyone is Middle Eastern and Jewish (except Connie, Eugene and the two Romans). But by making a few people sound stereotypically Yiddish and the rest sound like they come from Idaho, it’s hard not to picture an Ashkenazi minority among a white majority, when instead everyone should be Middle Eastern.

Okay, rant over. There will episodes where I can talk more about the racial politics of AIO.

Connie continues to do chores around the inn while the women tease her for her housekeeping ignorance. The women also bond over past experiences with childbirth and work, which… well, it’s the closest this episode comes to really teaching Connie something new. I do think it’s important to understand that, historically, traditional women’s work might have put women on the lower strata of society, but it also could bring meaning and community. If you’ve read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (and everyone should), a central point was how modern conveniences like microwaves and dishwashers stripped feminine work of required skill and therefore pride. This, combined with the isolation of suburbia, left women lonely, bored, and preoccupied with putting up an appearance of a feminine ideal that technology had rendered superfluous.

Breaking down the divisions between men’s and women’s work was essential for letting women take meaningful roles in society again. Unfortunately, when historical scorn of women’s work was combined with efforts to leave the confines of the home, feminism became conflated with femmephobia. Lots of more qualified people have talked about this, and I’m happy to say that while it is a problem, it is also a problem that is being discussed constructively in feminist circles. Meanwhile, the world outside of feminism tends to, on the one hand, mock feminists for being anti-feminine, and on the other, do nothing to actually portray housework as important and valuable.

This episode is a perfect example of that. There’s even a brief exchange where Connie asks, incredulously, if all this work is really necessary. A woman responds, “it is if we don’t want our families to complain.” Not “starve” but “complain.” The phrase conjures up images of the women in the fifties who actually did cook just to stop their families from complaining. Sure, some genuinely had a passion for it, but many cooked because a fancy meal cooked by a stay at home mom was a status symbol. They could have just as easily ordered takeout or reheated something frozen, and had time to pursue other life choices, but that would have emasculated their husbands, and heaven forbid the men just learn to be less fragile in their masculinity!

That wasn’t the reality for women of ancient times. They cooked to keep their families fed. They sewed to keep them warm. They cleaned to keep them healthy. Conflating modern housework with the housework of old times simultaneously puts down the legitimate problems of the former while degrading the importance of the latter. The writers don’t seem to truly understand their own criticisms of Connie’s feminism, which is why, instead of learning to participate in the feminine community and take pride in their work, she is just embarrassed.

And it’s about to get worse. Shepherds show up, loudly announcing they are about to head to the hills where everything will be nice and quiet. We, who know there will soon be angels freaking them all out, are supposed to find this hilariously ironic. Ok, whatever.

Connie asks them a bit about sheep herding. Big mistake. The main shepherd first say, “and who might you be, pretty little girl,” in this intensely condescending voice, and then laugh about a girl being curious about a man’s job.

There is no narrative reason for the shepherds to show up. They poke their heads in to ask if Benjamin is around, and they seem to just want to say hello before they leave. Nothing in the story changes because of their arrival, nor are they used to establish some “historical accuracy” about the work of shepherds. All you learn is that they sometimes went out into the fields because that’s literally where the grass was, and also they smelled bad. These are short episodes, and we’ve spent several minutes where nothing happens except Connie gets picked on for not fitting into this uber historically accurate sexist old timey Israel.

Uuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Hezekiah takes Eugene back to his home, which is full of toys that he has been carving for years in the expectation that he would one day have the opportunity to give them to baby Jesus. Eugene is blown away by the level of effort and all the blind faith that it took. This is really Eugene and Hezekiah’s dynamic in a nutshell. Hezekiah knows things about the virgin birth, and Eugene is blown away by his intuitions, and Hezekiah being all “yeah, isn’t faith amazing!” Then Eugene is all, “I’m so conflicted because this level of faith does not make sense and yet is so moving!”

Um………. YOU’RE ALL IN A VIRTUAL REALITY MACHINE!!! Hezekiah can say or do or know anything, because he’s not real! Whit made him up! If Eugene were a real agnostic skeptic, not a figment of the AIO writer’s imaginings, he would not be impressed by this shit.

But enough of that. Benjamin’s wife Rebecca starts asking Connie about possibly settling down in Bethlehem, because Judah clearly has the hots for her. This makes Connie highly uncomfortable. Not only does she not reciprocate those feelings, but she can’t exactly say “neither you nor Judah are actually real so this is literally impossible whether I want it or not.” Rebecca still reads Connie’s hesitation and keeps trying to pressure Connie to be emotionally okay with Judah’s attraction, which is such a mindfuck. Even though neither Judah nor Rebecca are real, they are realistic, and Connie is immersed in their world to such a degree that she can’t help empathizing with them. So Connie genuinely feels the pressure to play along with the Judah love story, just to avoid disappointing them. But the more she does, the more attached she gets to people who, as soon as the program stops, will cease to exist. She can be distant and uncomfortable now, or attached and miserable later.

On top of all this, Rebecca isn’t actually seeking Connie’s consent for the relationship. Sure, part of her is really into the idea of seeing a match unfold; enough to be all, “what, you don’t like Judah? You don’t like Bethlehem? Give me a reason for disliking either of these things so I can condescendingly shoot it down.” I guess she likes the idea of these two hotheads together, or she thinks its her duty to make Connie find the security of a spouse, or something like that. But at the same time, she does not empathize with Connie’s powerlessness or discomfort. In fact, she seems to be reveling in the schadenfreude of Connie’s discomfort. Rebecca is half old woman identifying with the oppressor and imposing sexist norms on the next generation, half first grader squealing, “Judah’s got a crush on yo-ou!”

Oh, also there’s a huge dose of “his constant immature petulance is just proof he likes you, boys will be boys, this is a normal and healthy way for relationships to start” thrown in. Again, this is a program Whit devised for kids.

I wish this was one of the areas where I could complain about implausibility, but I’ve known too many older women who actually are like that, so……

Mary’s labor begins and, well, it’s pretty much just a repeat of the plot points from the cooking scene. Connie is supposed to help, but is lost and confused. Rebecca is exasperated by Connie’s incompetence, and this is not used as an opportunity to teach Connie about old timey female bonding but merely to laugh at Connie’s ignorance of ancient midwifery. Meanwhile, Benjamin, Joseph, Hezekiah and Eugene wait for the baby. This too is just a retread of the previous Eugene/Hezekiah scene. The three not-real men debate the various levels of faith and skepticism they have been programmed with, and Eugene is blown away by the faith of the faithful, even though he knows it’s just a virtual reality program.

In our final scene, Judah meets Connie by the well, where she is getting water for Mary. He startles her into spilling the water. Then he helps her draw another bucket, and apologizes for yelling at her earlier, but it’s one of those weird apologies that is mostly guilt trip. He’s so miserable and humiliated all the time, and Connie made it worse and that’s her fault. But also he admires her for being so bold and brazen as to stand up to him. She’s not like all the other girls! (TM) He wants to know what she thinks of him. By which I mean he wants to pester and pester her until she kind of admits that maybe if a thousand different things were different she might be into him. At that stunning confession of love, he announces that he will speak to her master Eugene about a marriage. He ignores literally every attempt of hers to say no, and runs off to find Eugene, because it’s Eugene’s consent that really matters.

Also he spills the second bucket and leaves her to draw the third on her own. Worst. Proposal. Ever.

This story has one more episode to go, and my plan is to post the final part on Christmas Eve. Apologies for getting this up a little late; I was feeling sick and didn’t get to work on this episode as much as I wanted. Thanks for your patience, enjoy your holidays, and look for part three in just four days!

Furthermore, by Tahereh Mafi

Furthermore

What It’s About

Alice is a young girl, born colorless in a land where color and magic are intimately interwoven. But that doesn’t mean she can’t go on a quest to the mysterious and unpredictable country of Furthermore, with her equally mysterious and unpredictable friend Oliver.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Did you like Alice in Wonderland? The Phantom Tollbooth? The Wizard of Oz? Do you wish for more stories of dangerous adventures in beautifully bizarre otherworlds? Do you want them to be funny, heartfelt, and have little asides from the author? The kind where she admits that her characters are about to do something stupid and get into serious trouble, and you go, “noooo, I love these immature little shits, what are you doing????” because you do, you really love them? Do you like it when they grow, but not in a stupid forced aesop way, just in that natural way, where little kids get some stupid out of their system, and it gets them a little closer to being an adult? But not too close, because this is still a kids book? By which I mean a book appropriate for kids but also a delightful return to fantasy and wonder for adults?

Read Furthermore. It has all of that, plus origami foxes.

Content Warnings

Only mildly scary in a fantasy adventure way. You’ll be fine